Surrounded by President Barack Obama posters on the classroom walls, a dozen people hunkered at their desks. They were about to be tested on their ability to do long division, spell words such as "eight-penny nails" and comprehend a story about how a third of adults lack the skills to succeed in today's workplace.
The men and women had gathered at Better Family Life in St. Louis in the hope of someday weatherizing homes, installing solar panels or handling biofuels. The nonprofit group landed a $3.3 million federal stimulus grant to train and place 700 people into alternative energy jobs in two years.
"You are embarking on an industry that is about to take off," Kevin Nicholson, a job developer for the program, promised the recruits.
While much of the federal stimulus money has gone to large infrastructure projects and schools, pockets of money are also bolstering small businesses, community groups and nonprofits such as Better Family Life. The ventures may not get the attention of major bridge projects but are still promising to generate jobs.
A Belleville choir group was granted $25,000 to hire a music director. Grace Hill Settlement House received $2 million to retrofit or replace diesel engines to reduce emissions on 575 vehicles in public fleets, such as those used by the St. Louis Fire Department and the city schools. Hammer LGC, a construction company in Caseyville, landed $1 million to upgrade the St. Louis Arch tram control system.
Community groups and businesses say the money has provided a chance to reach more people and expand during needy times and tight credit markets.
With nearly half of all stimulus funding already spent, many projects are getting rolling, giving hope that the economy will gain better traction. They are also testing the government's ability to oversee how the money is used and ensure that jobs are generated.
Critics wonder how much impact the money will have in the end. They also contend that the money being handed out is a political maneuver to fund pet projects and keep constituents happy.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said the public understood that stimulus money would go toward repairing the nation's infrastructure.
"What we feel is negligent is the large amount of money that is going to places that don't know what to do with it and are not creating jobs with it," he said.
For people such as Adrian Mosely, stimulus programs couldn't come at a more opportune time.
Mosely, 36, of Webster Groves, is fresh out of a 12-year prison sentence for bank robbery. He has three children, but his need for a quick start has clashed with the lagging economy. He sat attentively at the recent Better Family Life placement session, taking the written test.
"I can go to White Castle and find a job, but that's not going to satisfy me — it's not going to give me peace, livelihood, income," Mosely said.
He hopes to land a "green" job, but he knows he has to be better educated and trained.
"There are people who haven't broken laws and are struggling," he said. "All I can do is push forward as hard as I can and be smart."
Politically, Steve Philipp, owner of Coatings Unlimited in Bridgeton, finds himself aligned more with conservatives who have decried the stimulus program.
That didn't stop him from accepting $622,000 in stimulus money to rehab and paint the steel gates of dams in Oklahoma and South Dakota. Even though he says his firm has benefited from work that needed to be done, he believes the stimulus is putting the country deeper in debt.
"I am not a fan of Obama and his regime, but I am happy to take his money," he said. "It's good for us, but I don't know if it's good for everybody."
GETTING ON BOARD
In all, Missouri has been awarded $5.3 billion in stimulus grants and loan guarantees, while Illinois has received $12.7 billion, according to ProPublica, an independent news organization that analyzes stimulus data.
In Missouri alone, stimulus money helped support more than $511 million in financing to small businesses.
Stimulus grants and loans are distributed through 28 federal agencies, from the departments of Energy, to Health and Human Services, to the Small Business Administration.
Better Family Life learned there was $150 million available in "Pathways Out of Poverty" grants for green jobs training, by simply scrolling through the Department of Labor website.
The online solicitation said applicants would need to serve the poor, particularly the unemployed, high school dropouts and people with criminal histories. The agency wanted applicants to focus on communities with poverty rates of 15 percent or more.
Better Family Life proposed to target neighborhoods in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County that held some 70,000 people without work, and with poverty rates reaching 39 percent in areas.
Out of hundreds of applicants, Better Family Life was one of 38 pitches that ultimately resonated with the Department of Labor.
Better Family Life was well positioned to apply for the money. As a nonprofit that focuses on work force, family and cultural development, it received $7.7 million in grants and contributions in 2008, records show.
"The green initiative was, to us, a natural complement to what we're doing," said Carolyn Seward, chief operating officer. "The customer base is there, the need is there."
Michael Balsam, chief strategy officer for Onvia, a Seattle-based consultancy that tracks government contracts and grants, said the stimulus program essentially expedited an existing process. The vast majority of groups that have received stimulus money had prior working relationships with government agencies.
"The idea was to take this ton of money and shove it through the existing pipeline and get it out really, really fast," Balsam said. The government "leveraged contracts that already existed."
That was the case for Masterworks Chorale, an independent Belleville choral ensemble that has performed in churches and other southwestern Illinois venues for 35 years. It will use its $25,000 grant to help hire a music director and a part-time marketing specialist.
Masterworks has previously received funding from the Illinois Arts Council for nearly 25 years.
"These are organizations that have demonstrated an ability to attract grants and comply with the guidelines in the past," said Arts Council spokesman Alex A.G. Shapiro. "And they have demonstrated good work."
Masterworks was one of 2,400 applicants for stimulus grants funneled through the National Endowment for the Arts. The applications were reviewed by 109 experts in music, art, literature and other creative areas that fall under the agency's purview.
"Our regular funding process is rigorous," said NEA spokeswoman Sally Gifford. "This went several steps beyond that."
It was worth the effort for Masterworks, which has been looking for a replacement after its founding director stepped down last year.
"We've been using guest conductors, which is no way to build an audience or to build singers," said board chairman Paul Wreford.
The chorale also wanted a marketing specialist "to connect us with the community" through Facebook and other Internet sites.
"This enables us to build audience and build singers," Wreford said. "And if we can do that, we should be able to move forward with the music after the grant runs out."
how much OVERSIGHT?
With so many contracts going to so many different places, the federal government faces a challenge in ensuring the money is used the right way.
For now, the oversight of stimulus grants appears to be more stringent than typical government measures to ensure accountability, observers and participants say.
Ten percent of Better Family Life's $3.3 million grant is earmarked to pay for an independent audit, which was required to secure the federal funding, said Seward, the chief operating officer. There are also occasional site visits from Department of Labor representatives.
"It just seems like there are a little more people involved because nobody wants to make a mistake," Seward said.
A key difference between stimulus contracts and regular federal contracts is the push to publicize how the funds are spent. Recipients are supposed to file quarterly reports, down to their ZIP codes, online (www.recovery.gov) so the public can track where and how stimulus money is being spent.
Balsam, of Onvia, gives the government high marks for trying to make businesses and agencies accountable for reporting how they spend the money.
"The intent is absolutely there," he said, calling efforts to promote accountability "laudable."
At the same time, he questions the true transparency of a system that trusts recipients to self-report every quarter online.
"The rules are kind of squishy," he said.
The fact that the stimulus package has become a political hot potato — with howls of protests from critics, especially conservatives — also complicates the transparency of the process, observers say. Some beneficiaries balk at providing details beyond what is available for public consumption on the Internet.
A firm based in O'Fallon, Mo., is one such company. According to the government, Tiger Waterfront Products received a $25,000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract to build six floating docks on Buckhorn Lake in eastern Kentucky. The company did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests from the Post-Dispatch about its contract.
Another business, Alton Physical Therapy, received a $1.7 million loan guarantee, but when asked in a phone interview what the money would be used for, a manager denied the firm had received stimulus funding. Before abruptly hanging up, she said, "This is pretty confidential information."
Balsam explained the hesitancy of some companies as "everybody feeling a little squirrely about who is looking over their shoulder." And the reason, he says, is obvious: "It's the political environment. That's the one downside to politicizing a process like this."
WILL IT WORK?
At the end of the day, the stimulus program will be measured by how many jobs it generates and the role it played in helping a beleaguered economy back on its feet.
Joseph Haslag, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, isn't optimistic. He said the government spending was more like a redistribution of money instead of a stimulus. The question, he said, is if programs such as Better Family Life's green jobs training are the best way to boost the economy.
"It's hard to make the case that somehow the program is a better use of the spending than what people would decide to do on their own," he said.
Critics such as Shimkus question why more of the money wasn't directed toward public works projects that could have a "long-lasting impact on the economy." He cited as an example major upgrades to the 80-year-old Mississippi River locks and dams above St. Louis.
Jared Bernstein, chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden, who is overseeing the stimulus, said it was "terrible economics" and "pretty heartless" to ignore millions of unemployed people. He agrees that the private sector ultimately must run the "great American job machine," but said that there were times when the federal government must step in.
"When the economy is significantly underperforming, stimulus funding is not redistributive at all," he said. "It's about growth."
It's that potential for growth that has caught the attention of people such as Brittany Davis, 20, who recently took the placement test at Better Family Life.
She holds a GED, attends community college and used to work at a Church's Chicken. Now, on the promise of stimulus spending, she hopes for a future in alternative energy.
"I don't want to be a cashier forever," she said.